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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

January Magazine Seventeen Years Young


You know how LinkedIn sends you those nets asking you to congratulate someone on a work anniversary? It can be pretty silly, because it will include anything on your résumé. Even if you say you're a freelance writer, for example, it will ask people to congratulate you on the anniversary of the day you posted. It's not done by a human being and computer programs can't tell the difference.

But this week I was asked to congratulate Linda Richards on 17 years running January Magazine and I really must. It is a fabulous review web site, which also has articles and  news about books and writers. You can follow it by email.


Some years ago, I was writing my first online reviews for a publication called Festivale Online. It was a good publication while it was going, but suddenly, without warning, it disappeared and the editor was out of contact with her contributors,not replying to emails.

Well, I liked my free books and being published. I had been receiving stuff from publishers.  My sister was receiving January Magazine by email, so I contacted Linda, asking if I could review for her. She sad yes, but that she couldn't supply the books. She lives in Canada andI live in Australia. I said that was fine; as long as I had somewhere to publish my reviews I had access to publishers.

So began a long, happy relationship that continues to the present. I don't send as many reviews these days as I used to, because most of them appear here, though I do share my reviews between our two web sites. And I still send her a "best of" post each year as she asks for one.

It has been a lot of fun and I've had some great experiences. Who can forget the morning I visited Allen and Unwin to collect the final Harry Potter book, then read all day to meet Linda's deadline? Because she is in the northern hemisphere I could email her early Sunday morning to say I'd be a couple more hours and she could reply that this was fine, she'd check her email again after dinner(it was still Saturday night there).  And then there was the time I reviewed a book about the Hildebrandt Tolkien calendars for JM. I had a lovely email from one of the artists thanking me for having given his nephew such a nice review. Not only that, but Caspar Reiff of the Tolkien Ensemble, which does wonderful albums setting Tolkien's songs and poems to music, offering me a review copy of the latest, which I had been wanting but unable to find in the shops here!

In a way, JM is the reason for this blog. Linda does it all herself from somewhere rural in Canada(she once told me there was a bushfire raging in her area). Sometimes my reviews hadn't been published after weeks and weeks. So I thought it best to publish things here when I hadn't heard; the publishers supplying me would want to know the review was up. Of course, The Great Raven has become a lot more than a review zine, as you know, though it is handy that I can be more flexible, since JM only publishes reviews of new books and I sometimes review classics or things that have been around for a bit longer than JM's one year limit.

But if it weren't for Linda Richards and January Magazine, The Great Raven might not exist. So here's to you, Linda! Long may January Magazine run!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

November 23 Meme


Okay, here are some things that make November 23 special(and if you're in the Northern hemisphere you will be reading this on November 22. Too bad! I'm lying in bed on Sunday morning posting this to the world)

Events


534 BCE Thespis of Icaria becomes the word's first actor to portray a character other than himself. In other words, the world's first actor! He did some other things to get plays going. His very name is used as a term for an actor, "thespian". And it all began On This Day! If interested, check out this blog post about the origins of Showbiz! 



1644  The poet John Milton publishes Aeropagitica, a pamphlet against censorship, due to a recent "licensing" system produced by Parliament -  not that he had anything against book-burning of "bad" books, he was a terribly grumpy man, but he says at least publish the things first, then argue against them(and you can always burn them afterwards). Hmm, sounds familiar. Like certain Aussie politicians who recently argued about "freedom of speech" for horrible people because we can always argue with them... Still. He wrote lots of fabulous poetry, crotchety man or not.

A quote from this: "A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life" is up in the New York Public Library.
1963  The first episode of Dr Who, "An Unearthly Child" is broadcast. Unfortunately it had to compete with the news of President Kennedy's assassination, but after fifty years it's still going strong. And in the last season, we returned to Coal Hill School, where the latest companion was working as a teacher. Yes, Coal Hill was also in Remembrance Of The Daleks, but it was only one story and it was set just after the first Doctor and his companions had left.

Birthdays

1892 Erte, that amazing illustrator and designer who did all those wonderful Art Deco pictures. Kerry Greenwood's heroine Phryne Fisher wears his designer clothes. He also did stuff for Hollywood silent movies, including Ben-Hur.  


1909 Nigel Tranter, author of a whole lot of historical fiction, mostly about Scotland. I've read some of his books, which are good stuff. 

1923 Gloria Whelan, a prolific US author of children's and YA novels. I'm embarrassed to say I haven't read any of her 50-odd books as yet, but I thought anyone with that much of a track record deserves a mention here. 

Holidays and observances

* This is the feast day of Alexander Nevsky, the Russian hero who has been made a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church and inspired a lot of film and music stuff.

* It's Rudolph Maister Day in Slovenia. He was a military officer who also wrote poetry.

* On a truly frivolous note, it's the earliest day on which Black Friday can happen - strictly a  US thing, coming just after Thanksgiving and the opening of Christmas shopping. Amazing they leave it that long!

I got all these from Wikipedia, a very useful source for such stuff. All images are Creative Commons.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hansel And Gretel by Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti. Sydney, Bloomsbury. 2014


The lost children. The gingerbread cottage. The scary witch who, however, doesn't see very well and can easily be fooled. All elements of one of the darker Grimm fairytales. All here in this retelling, along with the explanation of where the children's names come from. (When you think about it, if this had been a British folktale, it would have been called "Johnny and Maggie" or Meg or even Peggy, none of which have quite the same ring to them)

If you're going to have a folktale retold, especially such a dark one, Neil Gaiman is a good one to do it. The average retelling is just that - a straight retelling which isn't by the Brothers Grimm or whoever. "Once upon a time..." And then the writer and publisher decide just how much of the original story can be told, depending on who is having the story read to them. For example, you really don't want to describe Cinderella's stepsisters cutting off toes to fit into the glass slippers, do you? Not at bedtime, anyway. 

One thing about folktales is that you never learn reasons, such as why parents would throw their children out of the house to die, even in a famine. Neil Gaiman suggests war and thieving soldiers passing through and taking away all the food sources and destroying the fields. This version even suggests that it may be a reason behind the witch's cannibalism, though not entirely; from the description of what Hansel and Gretel find hidden around the gingerbread house afterwards, she sounds more like a serial killer than a poor old pensioner who is as much a victim as anyone else. 

At the end of the book, the author talks about the possible origins of the story in the time of the Plague, when all sorts of terrible things would have happened and family relationships broke down.

The book is basically an extended retelling rather than a twist on the original tale. If you're expecting something along the lines of The Sleeper And The Spindle, you may be disappointed. But as a retelling, it has class, and the beautiful moody black and white art of Lorenzo Mattotti supports it well.

If you're going to buy a version of this folktale to read to your children, this one is the way to go.

I hear there's a movie of this book planned, or at least optioned. That should be most  interesting...

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Jenny Mounfield Interview Part 2: Yusuf And Reece

First it was a group of Year 7 Literature Circles students interviewing Jenny Mounfield, author of thriller The Ice-cream Man(Ford Street Publishing), now two Year 8 students have their own questions. Thank you, Jenny, for agreeing to the extended interview! She says the boys' questions were very thought-provoking, so, without further ado, here they are...


Why is the hero of the book in a wheelchair?

The only reason initially was that my son, Dan, who is in a wheelchair, inadvertently gave me the idea for the story. But then it occurred to me that through Marty I had the opportunity show the reading world just how able the so-called ‘disabled’ can be.

Did you write this book for fun - or does it have a message?

I had no goal other than spinning a good tale when I began writing The Ice-cream Man. However, as the story progressed I could see various themes evolving. At its heart ICM is a coming of age story. Three boys who would otherwise have nothing in common, are brought together by a common goal. In a round about way the ice-cream man did the boys a favour. Through their misadventure they are bonded in friendship. And that’s the main message, if there is one: No matter how different we may think others are to us, there is always something that will unite us. All we need to do is find it.

How'd you come up with the title of The Ice-cream Man? 

It was pretty obvious, I guess, given the conflict that starts the ball rolling. To be honest, I didn’t give it any real thought.

What inspired you to write this book? We know it is based on a real life incident, but why write it as a story?

All the ‘What if?’s caught my imagination and I knew it would make a good story. I couldn’t not write it.

Do you have a day job?

Not any more. I used to be a florist.

On Characters

Rick- what made you make the character like this? He seems to be tough but isn't.

Everyone knows a Rick – or will, a some point in their lives. Many people build armour around themselves to prevent being injured by the world. It’s important to remember that when dealing with them. Those who appear to be the toughest have often been injured the most.

Marty- why'd you make Marty disabled?

As mentioned above, I thought it would be a good opportunity to demonstrate how able someone who is classified as ‘disabled’ can be through Marty. When Dan first went into a wheelchair everyone, including his therapists, treated it as such a tragedy. Yes, it was tragic in its way since beforehand Dan had been able to walk with the aid of a walking frame, but the wheelchair gave him a freedom he’d never experienced. For one thing his mates were now running to catch up with him instead of the other way round. Soon, there was no activity Dan couldn’t be involved in. He went fishing, taught himself to bounce up steps, played basketball – and a dozen other things. Everything Marty does in The Ice-cream Man Dan has done at one time or another (except battle a psycho – I hope!). So, the next time you see someone in a wheelchair, don’t feel sorry for them. There’s a good chance they have a more fulfilling life than you. Disability is very much in the mind of the beholder.

Aaron- do you like Aaron as a character? (SB: The boys thought him a bit of a wimp)

No, I didn’t particularly like Aaron at first, but he grew on me. He’s an important character because he’s perceived as soft and weak, yet – like all of us – has hidden depths. Whether consciously or unconsciously we only ever show a small slice of who we are to the world. Aaron may appear wimpy, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t the capacity for courage, given the right circumstances.

Robbo - why is he such a trouble maker? (SB: I have a feeling they may mean Steve, Aaron’s stepbrother, rather than Robbie, who only appears briefly. But Robbo is Steve’s mate, is he a follower or what?). 

Robbo, in writers’ speak, is a one-dimensional character. He’s a set-piece. A cliché. Though having said this I should add that there are many such clichés in the world: those, who for reasons of their own (probably fear) mimic others who seem to them to be stronger. I doubt the Robbos of the world think much about what they’re doing or why. As for Steve, I imagine he bullies Aaron because he can. It’s the animal side of human nature: To dominate and conquer. I believe that as intelligent, conscious beings, it’s up to us to rise above our animal natures and make intelligent choices, rather than simply act on impulses that arise from the most ancient part of our brains.

Thanks again for answering our questions, Jenny!

Readers, you can buy this from the Ford Street web site, order it through your friendly local bookshop or download the ebook version from iBooks and Amazon.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Saying Goodbye, Finally, To My Nerd Pack...

Tonight I'm off to the Year 12 formal  ("Senior Prom" to my American readers) , where I will be saying a final farewell to my former students, in particular my foundation book club members -  Dylan, Thando, Selena and Ryan. Without their enthusiasm, there would not have been a book club. I had tried to start one before, without success. 

I have seen them all occasionally, mostly on their way to school. Thando moved to the eastern suburbs for her mother's work, but continued to attend our school, though it meant leaving home at 6.30 am. She did tell me the last time we met, though, that she would be looking for a university on her side of town. Who can blame her?

Now they have finished their exams and are ready to party together one last time as schoolmates. And they will look gorgeous! I remember them all as littleYear 7 kids, barely out of primary school, and they have grown into young men and women

I wish I could post photos here, but that's illegal.  So I will just report and describe. 

I go every year. If I'm on time, I get the chance to see them all bustling around, having photos taken with their friends, exclaiming with pleasure at the sight of a teacher they haven't met in two years... (One year I had to sit with all the other staff while the Principal 
Maunder end on at us, till 5.00 pm, and the soup had already been served by the time I arrived. I don't have a car, the other staff did).

I got away late today too, so will have to hope I can make it before dinner starts!


Monday, November 17, 2014

The Sleeper And The Spindle By Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Chris Riddell. Sydney:Bloomsbury, 2014


The sleeping princess, the castle covered with roses with deadly thorns... A familiar story, but with a twist.

In her kingdom a young queen who, we learn as we read, is another fairytale heroine, is preparing for her wedding, though feeling some doubts, when she is visited by three dwarves. They have heard of the enchanted castle - and that the spell of sleep is spreading. In fact, they've seen it with their own eyes. As magical beings, they were unaffected, but sooner or later all humans will fall asleep. Will she come and see what can be done?

Happily, she puts on her armour and kisses her handsome prince farewell to go on her quest, while issuing orders for the evacuation of all communities in or near the mountains, from which the sleep spell is spreading.

I can't tell you any more without spoilers, but it's a beautiful book, wonderfully illustrated by Chris Riddell, whom you may remember from Fortunately, The Milk... in which he drew the author as the hero. The twist at the end is fascinating and delightful, though I have to say, if you're looking for a fairytale retelling to read your children, this isn't it. It's for those who have read both The Sleeping Beauty and other folktales and appreciate the difference. 

It is, however, a positive viewing of one fairytale heroine at least, and the author has managed to world build and create fairly fleshed-out characters within the space of a short story.

If you're going to buy it as a Christmas gift, make sure you get another copy for yourself or you will never hand it over!


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Comet Landing - Rejoice!

I've always loved the sensawunda of space fiction. As the years have gone by, I've absorbed science fiction and seen it become science fact.

And now the Rosetta mission is complete and the probe Philae is aboard comet 67P! Mind you, the latest reports say that the battery won't last much past Saturday, due to the fact that it can't recharge(they were explaining this on the radio ths morning, something about the battery being solar, but it's not able to access the sun... So, little probe that has been travelling all these years, take pictures while you can! 

Speaking of science fiction(I was), I recall that Arthur C Clarke's novel 2061 began with a spaceship on its way to land on Halley's Comet, only it's not a probe, it has people aboard. There were, as I recall, monoliths involved somewhere in it. But that is what I remember. I borrowed a friend's copy, so haven't looked at it in years.

Amazing what Arthur C Clarke thought of. I like his short stories better than the novels. A while back, when I won a $25 Amazon gift voucher, I spent part of it on a couple of Clarke collections. I'm still making my way through them; Clarke is a writer whose work you savour.

Did you know 2001 started with a short story, "The Sentinel"? The film didn't have much in common with it, just the moon and the monolith. Space travellers on the moon find a monolith. They touch it and that sets it off. They figure it was set there by aliens to tell them when Earth finally made it to space. The question is - will they come and give us lots of goodies or will they come and wipe out the potential threat? As it was, it might have made a nice episode of Twilight Zone or Outer Limits.

But Hollywood did more - far more - with it.


Well, we still don't have the kind of casual spaceflight shown in Clarke, but events like the comet landing show we're getting there. I am so very excited!

 
Mosaic image taken by Rosetta's navcam in September. Creative Commons image from Wikimedia